TMCNet:  Toppenish STEM program teaches tomorrow's skills today

[April 02, 2012]

Toppenish STEM program teaches tomorrow's skills today

TOPPENISH, Apr 02, 2012 (Yakima Herald-Republic - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The Toppenish School District's demographics don't work in its favor.

The district's population is poor, rural and consists overwhelmingly of minorities that historically haven't always done well in school.

And yet Toppenish High School students here rush to take pre-calculus and trigonometry. A team of students is getting ready for a national robotics competition in Anaheim, Calif., later this month.

The change is being spurred by fundamental changes in the way the school teaches science, technology, engineering and math -- areas of study collectively referred to by the acronym STEM.

"It's just changed the culture at the high school," Toppenish Superintendent John Cerna said.

It has also attracted attention from the state's top education leaders. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn has highlighted the school as a model for others to follow. And last fall several members of the House Education Committee traveled to Toppenish to study the program.


The changes in Toppenish are part of a national push to improve STEM education in the United States, a move that's picked up speed in the past decade.

Advocates say STEM is necessary to maintain America's economic competitiveness -- a claim that is disputed but has resonated with politicians and pundits as China and India churn out large numbers of engineers and other highly skilled workers.

Figuring it out Toppenish's STEM classes don't look like traditional science and math classes where students sit in neat rows, dutifully taking notes.

A recent tour showed the difference.

In one class, students tested softball-size robots they'd programmed to detect light and shadow cues. In another, students were designing a public library using advanced software on powerful computers.

In a third class, freshmen were slipping ice down the shirts of their classmates, who are holding heartrate sensors. The students talk excitedly and playfully threaten each other with ice.

It might not look like learning, but that's what's going on, science teacher Enrique Romero said.

"If I didn't know any better, as I look around the room -- this is chaos. But if I look around and listen to what kids are saying, they're learning in their own way." Anthony Valdez tried not to squirm as ice chips slid down his back while his lab partners laughed. Valdez looked at the monitor, and while he didn't move much, his heart rate was rising. A student jots the results down in a notebook.

The group was seeing how external factors -- such as ice -- can change a person's heart rate. It was all part of their Principles of Biomedicine class.

Romero wants his students to see the cause and effect firsthand before he explains it. He wants them to have some context when he tells them that the ice prompts the brain to warm up Valdez's back by sending more blood to the area.

"I can get into a discussion about 'How does your body know to react that way?'" Romero said.

Valdez likes the hands-on approach. "I actually pay more attention," he said.

During the experiment, several students ask Romero questions about what the data means.

"Figure it out," he tells them.

It's a phrase Romero uses often.

But he didn't before becoming a STEM teacher last school year, when his classes involved a lot more of him lecturing.

Back then, "I would've felt bad about saying that," Romero said. "Now, we've created a situation where they can figure things out." Results are showing The school's STEM program, which started in the fall of 2009, is still too new to measure its effect on academic performance, but it is clear that students are interested.

Registration in pre-calculus jumped from 19 students in 2010 to 62 this year, an increase of 226 percent. Trigonometry went from 75 students to nearly 130 in that same time.

Chemistry and anatomy/physiology each had fewer than 40 students in 2010, and now have more than 90 each.

About a quarter of the school's more than 700 students are taking an engineering class this year.

The classes are open to every student, said Trevor Greene, Toppenish High School's principal. "You have kids from special education sitting next to honors students in an aerospace engineering class." Molly Clayton, a junior, understands the spike in math classes.

Engineering classes makes math more interesting, she said. "In engineering, you apply what you learn in math. It broadens your math skills." Girls account for 36 percent of the school's engineering students. In the U.S., 23 percent of workers in STEM-related fields are women, according to a 2011 study by Georgetown University.

It's not hard to see why the classes are so popular with students, said math teacher Desiree Fry. "You may not want to be an engineer, but we play with robots and we build stuff." Plans to expand The program now has seven trained teachers, and offers 17 classes. The district has expanded the effort into its middle school, with plans to eventually extend the program into elementary school.

The school did not provide information about the program's costs, but teachers and administrators said high-end computers and other equipment are the largest expenses.

Day-to-day costs are very low, said science teacher Shawn Myers, who handles the program's budget.

Most of the money for the program comes from outside sources, principally from the federal government through the University of Washington's GEAR UP program, which has provided a total of $730,000 since 2010.

Despite Toppenish's limited resources, he is surprised when he sees wealthier districts that don't invest in engineering, math and science courses, or in new technology.

"Yeah, it surprises me, and I don't really understand it." --Contact Dan Catchpole at 509-577-7684 or dcatchpole@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dcatchpole.

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